In one of the already classical revisionist narratives of the Scientific Revolution, Mordechai Feingold showed us that Newton’s followers, i.e. rather mathematically-minded natural philosophers who would almost despise natural history (seen as a process of collecting and classifying) in favor of the more theoretical natural philosophy, were actually outnumbered by the ones that, following a Baconian trope, preferred to “put Weights on the Intellect” (and thus, at least for the moment, focused on collecting, exposing, cataloging and experimenting, rather than theorizing). This position, as it is inherited by the Bibliographic historian William Poole, can be formulated in terms of a “mathematicians (geometers)” vs. “naturalists” debate. Poole chooses to tell the story of the latter (xiii, 171) , and thus, both with appealing prose and admirable precision, takes Feingoild’s programme one step further.
Alan Chalmers’ book really makes us wonder what we know about the physics of liquids and about how science got to this knowledge. The book provides a great historical reconstruction of the major episodes in the development of modern hydrostatics. It shows how the apparent familiarity of a physical concept mislead and continues to be misleading. The concept of pressure is usually presented as a ‘given’, but it’s far from being self-evident, and its hundred years of intellectual development attest this.
Writing, today, on the Scientific Revolution, is one of the most difficult tasks facing the historian of science. Not only because one has to begin by digging through hundreds of thousands of pages of scholarly criticism, but because the existence and the contours of the phenomenon itself are questionable. Not so long ago, a popular book on the same subject famously begun by claiming: “There is no such thing as the Scientific Revolution, and this is a book about it.”[i]